What machines don't know
Why the rise of AI means the humanities are more important than ever
René Magritte, L’Empire des lumières, 1953.
C.P. Snow only had one big hit, but it was a catchy one. In 1959, Snow proposed that the intellectual life of modern society was split into “two cultures”, scientific and humane, with the latter privileged over the former. He found himself surrounded by people who would happily cite Shakespeare but hadn’t a clue about the second law of thermodynamics. In Britain, at least, knowing about literature and history was high-status; knowing about engineering and technology was grubbily low-status.
Today, the position is close to being reversed. In Britain, and even more in the U.S., the high-status people are often software developers, data scientists and biotech entrepreneurs. It’s still true that our public elites are still more likely to have humanities degrees, but it is now de rigueur to know, or least pretend to know, a little statistics, physics, computer science. Journalists and public servants like to berate their tribes for not being able to calculate a standard deviation; it’s the one thing on which everyone agrees with Dominic Cummings.
In the higher educational sector there is a kind of cringing embarrassment at still having to teach legacy subjects which don’t inculcate “twenty-first century skills”. A recent article in the New Yorker looked at the precipitous decline in the humanities in the American university; in the last decade, the study of English and History in US colleges has fallen by a third (I couldn’t find exactly comparable UK data but there is a similar story here). Funds flow towards science and technology and away from literature, philosophy and history. Barack Obama, despite himself being a lover of poetry and fiction, gave the humanities short shrift in policy terms, focusing relentlessly on STEM, and Joe Biden has followed suit (I’m not sure what Trump’s policy on education was but I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve much Henry James).
As your typical self-loathing literature graduate I have been on the side of the Snowites. The modern world is built on science and technology. Increasingly, it runs on software powered by data analytics. We needed a recalibration of our social mores to keep up with reality, and our workforce must be equipped for the tech-driven world of the future. That’s the sensible position to adopt, isn’t it? But when I came across this fiercely anti-Snow passage from Iris Murdoch, I found myself taken by it:
Words are the most subtle symbols which we possess and our human fabric depends on them. The living and radical nature of language is something which we forget at our peril. It is totally misleading to speak, for instance, of ‘two cultures’, one literary-humane and the other scientific, as if these were of equal status. There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous, is now an important part. But the most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations. We are men and we are moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in human life must be discussed in words. This is why it is and always will be more important to know about Shakespeare than to know about any scientist. Iris Murdoch, from The Idea of Perfection.
Murdoch wrote this in 1962, three years after Snow introduced his idea. Compared to his, her argument might feel like the anachronistic one. But as AI hurtles down the track, I actually think Murdoch is more right now than she was back then. Let me explain why.
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